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What My Daughter’s Siddur Ceremony Taught Me About Jewish Prayer

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Ted Chevalier

My daughter’s siddur ceremony was a few weeks ago. She’s in first grade at a Jewish Day School, and after spending the year studying tefillah, or prayer, the entire class got their own prayer books.

In our school, as in many other day schools, the parents’ job is to decorate the cover of the prayer book. I was thrilled about this task, because it gave me another opportunity to participate in my daughter’s Jewish education, and because crafting is something I can do. My projects never come out quite as I imagined them, and they’re always a little rough around the edges. But if raising two daughters who love nothing more than a good craft project has taught me anything, it’s that imperfect and beautiful are not mutually exclusive.

With the help of my friends and husband, I ended up making a cover I was quite pleased with: a six-pointed sunshine. I have just such a star tattooed on the inside of my ankle, and “You Are My Sunshine” is one of the songs we sing at bedtime each night.

Once the cover design was done, I needed to figure out what to write on the inside. I knew I wanted to start with a quote, and I wanted to make sure it wasn’t about God, as my husband is an atheist, and I wanted his perspective to be represented.

The thing is, I wasn’t entirely clear about my own views on prayer. Whenever we go to services, I am happy to pray silently on my own and sing along with the community, and each night at bedtime I sing the Shema with the girls. And yes, I believe in God, primarily from the perspective of Reconstructionist Judaism, which sees God as a power that works through people, rather than upon us. Thus, it is incumbent upon us to behave in ways that bring compassion, justice, kindness, and peace into the world, rather than expecting a just and compassionate God to do that work for us.

Accordingly, when I pray, it’s not to God. I’m not sure it’s to anyone or anything. For me, it’s more about calming my thoughts and focusing my attention on the ideas, practices, traditions, and possibilities that make it more likely that I will behave in Godly ways. It’s about clearing out some of the mental clutter and making space for the good stuff–the clarity, connection, and compassion–to find its way into my awareness. The more often I am able to do this, the more likely it is that I will behave in ways that reflect my values, Jewish values. Sometimes that means forgiving a long-standing quarrel, sometimes it’s about giving money to a homeless person on the street, and sometimes it comes down to not yelling at my girls quite so much.

As for the Jewish part of my prayer life, well, that’s a bit trickier. Hebrew is not my language, and more often than not, I only have a vague sense of what I’m saying when I recite traditional Jewish prayers. I’m generally OK with that, because it keeps me from getting wrapped up in concepts I may or may not agree with. For me, Jewish prayer is about finding, and remembering, my connection to my community and to my history. It’s about giving meaning, context, and texture to the values that I keep coming back to, time and again.

With all of this in mind, I found a quote from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel that resonated with both my husband and me, and hopefully, with my daughter as well. Heschel wrote:

“Prayer cannot bring water to parched fields, or mend a broken bridge, or rebuild a ruined city; but prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart, and rebuild a weakened will.”

I hope that as my daughter learns to pray from her own siddur, she will learn, and remember, that the power of prayer lay not just in supplication, awe, or gratitude, but also in the opportunity to reconnect with the Godliness that exists within each of us. And as I put the finishing touches on a prayer book that looks like no other prayer book in Jewish history, I hope that my daughter will find her own way into, and connection with, Jewish prayer.


Read More:

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